Gainsborough’s Family Album Back

Fast on the heels of James Hamilton’s revealing biography, Gainsborough: A Portrait, published in 2017, Gainsborough’s Family Album was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, London and brought together over 50 portraits he painted of himself, his family and his relations. Like any family album of images it not only provided a visual record but revealed much about the artist himself and those close to him, notably his wife Margaret and their two daughters Mary and Margaret. It was unusual for an artist of this period to produce such a large body of personal work, one which reassembled so successfully provides a fresh insight into Gainsborough’s character, his art and the world in which he worked.

The exhibition, which now moves to Princeton, falls into three parts: Gainsborough’s early life in London and Suffolk, his move to Bath in 1758 and then his final years in London (1774-1788). The youngest and 9th child of John and Mary Gainsborough, Thomas was born in Sudbury in 1727. His father owned a clothing business which failed in 1730, after which he went on to be employed as Sudbury’s Postmaster. John Gainsborough was the subject of one of his son’s early portraits which shows a sober pensive character in a brown coat set against a brown background. A strong light illuminates the left side of his face and his grey curling wig in the manner of Hogarth’s portraits. From a young age Gainsborough had shown a talent for drawing and at the age of 13 his father sent him to London where at first he is said to have been apprenticed to an engraver, working alongside Hubert François Gravelot, Francis Hayman and in the circle of the St Martin’s Lane Academy. He had a passion for landscape throughout his life but it was portraiture for which he was paid and he soon learnt the skills required to succeed. He married Mary Burr in 1746. She was the illegitimate daughter of the 3rd Duke of Beaufort from whom she received an annuity of £200. This was to be a great asset to an aspiring artist.

The exhibition opens with a painting of The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary (1748, National Gallery, London). The couple are sitting in a landscape in the fashionable portrait style of Francis Hayman. They appear doll-like and unconnected, with their small ruddy-cheeked daughter, Mary, between them. She was added subsequently only to die two years later. Both husband and wife are elegantly dressed, he with a tricorn hat and bright red waistcoat which contrasts with the billowing blue skirt of Margaret’s dress. Margaret’s leg appears through the strange muslin apron while a dog unconcernedly laps the water from the pond in the foreground. This uncomfortable portrait represents Gainsborough seeking to establish himself on the same social level as those he portrayed, such as the well-known portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (National Gallery, London). This concern for his image is also evident in his Self-Portrait (c.1754, Private Collection), where he gazes out in a slightly truculent manner, his tricorn hat boldly painted at a rakish angle and a suggestion of his hand stuck in his waist-coat. The frock coat is only roughly sketched in as he portrays himself in the pose more usually associated with an 18th-century gentleman than with an aspiring artist.

In 1750 Margaret gave birth to another daughter, Mary, soon to be followed by Margaret. They were to be the subjects of at least six double portraits, not only painted with affection, but which also provided him with the opportunity and freedom to experiment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c.1756, National Gallery London), where he depicts Mary restraining Margaret from chasing a butterfly and from pricking her finger on a thistle. This delightful painting reveals much about Gainsborough in the way he has captured with broad brush strokes the lively movement of the children and the raking light playing on the folds of their dresses caught in the breeze. A moral dimension of the subject has been noted in the dangers inherent in pursuing the pleasures of life. The unfinished picture was never sold and Gainsborough gave it to his friend the Reverend Robert Hingeston, the Headmaster of Ipswich School.

In 1758-9, Gainsborough and his family moved to Bath in search of greater opportunities for portrait painting and in 1760 leased a grand house with large rooms in Abbey Street, in the fashionable centre of the town. Two confident finished half-length portraits of both himself and Margaret were undoubtedly painted for display in their new parlour, advertising to Bath Society his skills and their social standing. In his Self-portrait (1758-9, National Portrait Gallery, London) he portrays himself unashamedly as a gentleman, against a landscape setting, dressed in a rich brown velvet coat with gilt buttons, and a black ribbon around his neck. His hand is thrust into his waistcoat with a freely painted white cuff and his tricorn hat under his arm. Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife (c.1758, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin) is also represented in an aristocratic pose, but more in the manner of Lely, her ample bosom displayed in a low cut dress of grey taffeta(?), and her hand securing a pale greyish shawl draped around her shoulders. With her dark hair tied back and her resigned gaze, her costume is executed freely with dashes of paint in contrast to her densely painted face. Gainsborough’s family had always been associated with textiles and his widowed sister, Mary Gibbon, followed him to Bath. At first she rented a room opposite to Gainsborough’s showroom for her drapery business where many of his sitters could choose their fabrics.

In Bath, Gainsborough executed a series of paintings of his daughters including Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, playing with a Cat (c.1760-1, National Gallery, London), where he paints the two children with their faces pressed together, Mary’s arm around Margaret grasping the tail of a cat which is barely visible on her lap.  Although their faces are fully worked up, the remainder of the picture is barely sketched in using white chalk or pastel and drawn in paint over the two layers of priming. Remaining unfinished, it shows as a very personal and affectionate memento of his daughters. Hanging close by is Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughter as a Gleaner (c.1760-1, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), which is a fragment of an unfinished painting of his two daughters dressed as peasant girls in a corn field dividing their gleanings. This unsatisfactory picture showing Margaret set against a menacing stormy sky, a token scarf around her head and wheat laid across her lap, is painted in a very experimental sketchy way. It no doubt illustrates his unsuccessful attempt at a ‘fancy painting’, a genre which was fashionable and very much in demand in the second half of the 18th century.

Gainsborough’s concern for the future well-being of his daughters encouraged him to try out a more complex composition in his three-quarter length portrait of Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughters, at their Drawing (c.1753-4, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester MA). Following a grave illness Gainsborough was anxious that the future of his daughters should not depend on marriage but that both should have a means to support themselves should he not survive. He decided they should be trained as professional artists to paint and sell landscapes. His own real desire, as expressed to his friend William Jackson, was “I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gam and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietnesse and ease”. Margaret stands in profile with vacant stare at a reduction of the Farnese Flora on a table behind her while Mary is seated with a portfolio on her lap, holding a porte-crayon and looking plaintively out of the picture. X-rays reveal how he changed his ideas since originally Margaret was intended to face her sister. The eye is immediately drawn to his painting of Mary’s very fine white bodice with its pattern of white flowers, while the swirling brilliant blue drapery of Margaret’s costume and her hand and long fingers draped over the chair behind Mary are pure Van Dyck.

Due to his business success in Bath, Gainsborough took on his nephew Gainsborough Dupont as his apprentice in 1772. In his painting Gainsborough Dupont the Artist’s Nephew (1773, Waddesdon, Rothschild Family), he demonstrates his emulation of Van Dyck  as he paints an oval of the young Gainsborough Dupont in the then fashionably 17th-century costume as if “he had stepped straight out of the court of Charles I”. This painting has recently been cleaned and reveals better the bravura handling of paint in the dazzling blue of his costume through which, due to Gainsborough’s use of very thin paint leading to transparency, his pinky-beige ground is now visible and is reflected in the strokes of blue paint in the sitter’s hair and around his eyes. It was reputedly executed in one hour and Gainsborough became well known for his virtuosity and speed of execution. The same characteristic technique can also be seen in Edward Richard Gardiner, the Artist’s Nephew (1772-4, Tate Gallery), where the thin paint of the blue costume is applied even more broadly although the face is carefully observed and densely painted. Three years earlier he had expressed his ambition to emulate van Dyck. This is plain to see in his ‘Portrait of a Young Gentleman’ known as The Blue Boy which may also have represented Dupont. It was greatly acclaimed at the Royal Academy of which he was a founder member.

One of the earliest portraits in the Exhibition is that of Humphrey Gainsborough, the Artist’s Brother (1754-6, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). Gainsborough’s brother, Humphrey, became a Congregational Minister with a serious side interest in engineering, and spent his life in Henley-on-Thames. In this austere portrait he is depicted in profile with a long nose which is echoed by the diagonal of his black hat, and his black coat is only relieved by the suggestion of his white cravat. The influence of the sitter in the choice of this format cannot be discounted and may have been suggested by the Renaissance profile portraits of the Protestant reformers. We meet him again – the only sibling to be painted twice – with Humphrey Gainsborough, the Artist’s Brother (early 1770s, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT), in a mature completed portrait showing Humphrey, serious and profound, gazing up with raised eyes, a high forehead and neatly groomed grey hair. It was clearly a good likeness as one of his congregation in Henley commissioned Gainsborough – the only recorded instance – to paint a second version of one of the portraits of his relations. Gainsborough’s facility at capturing character is provided by his distinctly unflattering, unfinished portrait of John Gainsborough (‘Scheming Jack’), the Artist’s Brother (early 1770s, Private Collection). He was an inventor who fell on hard times and eventually came to depend financially on his younger brother with whom he had not kept up socially. This is revealed by his somewhat dishevelled appearance and disgruntled look. Designed as an oval portrait much of the primed canvas is left bare while the weak painting of his clothes may have been left to Dupont.

In 1774 Gainsborough moved with his family to London and resided in one wing of Schomberg House in Pall Mall. He was at the peak of his career, patronised by the Royal Family and received socially. The portrait of Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s daughters (c.1774, Private Collection) shows the two young ladies, full length, standing close together in a landscape setting typical of the fashionable and successful portrait style for which he was so in demand. The emphasis is on their costumes, Mary’s in tones of pink while Margaret wears a pale grey shimmering dress whose folds are caught in a play of light. She holds up her skirt in her hand in a refined gesture, revealing a deep blue under garment. Mary has her arm around her younger sister and a gauzy scarf with golden highlights binds them together. Gazing up at the pair who stare blankly out of the picture is a fluffy poodle, the well-known symbol of fidelity. This picture was finished and clearly intended for display to encourage commissions, and thus in strong contrast to Gainsborough’s two unfinished portraits of his daughters which show him painting at his freest and most personal. In Mary Gainsborough, the Artist’s Daughter (1777, Tate Gallery) he depicts her face carefully, but the pink rose falling from her Rubensian costume is wildly brushed in and the blobs and dashes of impasto on her feathered hat are unprecedented. The recently located and very unfinished portrait of Margaret Gainsborough, The Artist’s Daughter, Playing Cittern (c.1777, Private Collection) was in the artist’s possession when he died in 1788 and it alludes to their shared love of music.

From this period there are a number of portraits of Margaret, his wife, whom Gainsborough is reputed to have painted each year for her birthday. Margaret Gainsborough the Artist’s Wife (c.1777, Courtauld Institute Gallery, London) is most sympathetic and arresting, and thought possibly to have been for her fiftieth birthday. She looks straight at the viewer, her grey hair swept up and covered with a black mantilla which she holds back in a pose reminiscent of the Classical statue known in the 18th century as pudicitia (modesty). It is close to the portrait Sarah Dupont, the Artist’s Sister (1777-9, The Art Institute Chicago) which is a tour de force. Twelve years older than her brother, he paints her as a formidable older woman with her piercing gaze and grey hair swept up and covered by an elaborate lace bonnet of the latest fashion, a kerchief tied around her neck with a bow echoed by an even grander and more flamboyant one on her shawl. The wise expression of her closely observed face and the freely applied touches of white/grey paint of her costume shine out from the dark background. In contrast Gainsborough chose an oval format for the portrait of Philip Dupont, the Artist’s Brother-in-law (1777-9, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). This depicts its subject as an unsophisticated solid man, without a wig and dressed in an unfashionable coat and high-buttoned waistcoat.

With regard to Tristram and Fox[?] (c.1775-1785, Tate Gallery), Gainsborough was undoubtedly fond of dogs which he often included in his paintings. But he also produced this endearing portrait of his family pets. It has been pointed out that it is a study in contrasting the temperaments of Fox, his dog, the spitz, shown in the centre of the picture alert with bright eyes, his teeth bared and his ears turned forward, and Margaret’s spaniel Tristram shown as passive and half asleep.

Gainsborough’s late portraits of his wife become ever more personal and smaller in scale. Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife (mid to late 1780s, Gainsborough House, Sudbury, Suffolk) is in an oval format and she is wearing the fashionable mob-cap of the time with its puffed up crown tied under her chin. Very freely and lightly painted it is a touching painting of an older woman. Before he died in 1788, Gainsborough painted two self- portraits, Self-portrait (c.1786, Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate), and Self-portrait (c.1787, Royal Academy of Arts, London). And whereas the picture at Holkham is executed with a high level of finish, the Self-portrait in the Royal Academy was painted as a gift for his close friend, Carl Friedrich Abel, the composer, who died before it was completed. He shows himself looking out over his shoulder, his greying hair and blue coat sketchily painted and enlivened by the white of his cravat, conveying an image of himself as both knowledgeable and a gentleman. He left instructions that this was the only likeness of his features that he would sanction to be engraved after his death and consequently to be remembered by. The small unfinished portrait of Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist’s Nephew (c.1770-75, Tate Gallery), painted close in time to the Rothschild portrait, was on his easel when he died and has been interpreted as expressing his regret at having reached the end of his life without having realised the full extent of his talent. It also reinforced his wish to be remembered alongside Van Dyck and that his artistic heir should be his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont.


Martin Bailey, in the October 2018 issue of The Art Newspaper, drew attention to the fresh research undertaken by Mark Bills, Director of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, Suffolk. This focussed on the financial dispute which concluded with the murders of Thomas Gainsborough’s uncle (1678-1739) and his son (1709-1739), both also named Thomas. This material is published in full in Early Gainsborough: ‘From the Obscurity of a Country Town’, by Mark Bills and Rica Jones, as an accompanying publication for the recent exhibition, Early Gainsborough, at Gainsborough’s House. Martin Bailey had tracked down the highly revealing threatening letters published in the Daily Gazette issues of 1 March 1737 and 24 October 1738, and consequently both his article and the book by Mark Bills and Rica Jones should be read in conjunction with The National Portrait Gallery Catalogue.

Gainsborough’s Family Album was at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 22 November 2018 to 3 February 2019. It will be at Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey, from 25 February 2019 to 5 June 2019. It was accompanied by a publication: David Solkin, Ann Bermingham and Susan Sloman, Gainsborough’s Family Album (2018), priced £29.95.